Review: Salvage the Bones

Posted on February 7, 2012

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Salvage the Bones
By Jesmyn Ward
Bloomsbury
August 2011
272 pages

Brace yourself. Jesmyn Ward pulls no punches in this raw portrait of a poor, rural Mississippi family in the ten days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. Fourteen-year old Esch Batiste is the lone female among three boys and her father. Her mother died during the birth of Junior, several years earlier.

At the core of this story is China, a beautiful white pit bull. She is brother Skeetah’s prize fighter and – it turns out – the family’s great white hope. As the story opens, she births a litter of puppies (her first) worth hundreds of dollars in the local dog fighting scene. Esch holds a special bond with China because she is the only other female in the family, and Esch longs to be as loved and pampered as the dog. Ward draws a striking parallel between these two lives. Just as China is seduced into the dog fighting ring because of her lot in life, so is Esch sexually used and abused by her brothers’ friends who hang out at the “Pit”. When Esch discovers she’s pregnant she keeps it secret, a revelation that in her family puppies are more valuable than another mouth to feed. While Esch observes China’s indifferent, even weary attitude toward new motherhood she comes to terms with her own dilemma.

Overshadowing all of this is Hurricane Katrina. As the storm gets whipped up by warm gulf waters so does the sturm and drang in the Batiste family, all of which climaxes into a powerful, discordant crescendo that is unforgettable in its savagery. Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award, perhaps because Esch and the rest of the Batiste family are so achingly real they haunt you beyond the pages of the book as you wonder if they will be okay. The one true hope in this story is that we at last comprehend the tragedy of poverty.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Peggy Tibbetts

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